The Communicative Action of Trolls

Habermas’s theory of communicative action rests on the idea that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. In conceiving cooperation in relation to validity claims, Habermas highlights its rational and cognitive character: to recognize the validity of such claims is to presume that good reasons could be given to justify them in the face of criticism.

Thus spake the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those of us who have been participating since, say, 1993 in humanity’s biggest communicative enterprise so far will recognize the problem: that there are plenty of actors who are not at all interested in “intersubjective validity” or “social cooperation,” but hijack the rituals of conversation. Trolls, griefers, astroturfers, bots of various make… One’s impulse is to treat such people as flies in the ointment, parasites, bugs, noise– exceptions that crop up alongside a better rule. But proper confrontation with any paradoxical consequence, not sweeping under the rug, is what is needed,┬áif we are ever going to work out this rationality thing. What if we were all secretly trolls? How would that affect communicative behavior going forward?

6 thoughts on “The Communicative Action of Trolls

  1. Trolls go back to at least when I joined USENET, which was a few years earlier. Back then, there were ways of influencing their behavior. There were system administrators who cared what was coming from their users, and beyond the admins, there was the “backbone cabal,” members of whom would threaten to cut off Internet connectivity to a given institution, with the legal right to do so, if a problem user were not dealt with. There were nutcases back then, but the Internet was a smaller place, a place for scientists and researchers to communicate, and there was more of a sense of community. Tools evolved with the number and seriousness of the nutcases — in particular, USENET news readers developed “killfiles,” which allowed you to consign offending posts and posters to oblivion without ever reading what they said. Nowadays, these “old fashioned” methods are more needed than ever, but there is an arms race between the trolls and those who seek to contain them by technological means.

  2. Unfortunately, I have observed that much of the peer reviews today have deteriorated under condition of anonymity into the communicative action of trolls. Instead of evaluating an argument of another person within a given framework or offering constructive suggestions, the reviewer often deliberately misconstrues and thwarts the argument that doesn’t fit his/her own immediate agenda or perception of things. Instead of stimulating a controversy or promoting a debate, the goal is to censure alternative approaches. But I do think the anonymity is a big part of the problem. The Habermasian dialogism presupposed a transparent public space where people are ready to take responsibility for their words, where the ideological perspectives of the speakers are clearly delineated.

  3. Maybe that was just more trolling, sorry to pollute the public space of this comment board. If there was only a “delete comment” feature, I would absolutely delete all my under-edited responses.

  4. One’s first reaction is to think that trolls are antithetical to “communicative behavior.” But then one says, wait a minute, isn’t this too dualistic? Is there a Turing test for deciding who is and isn’t a troll? Can we have a new theory of communicative behavior that accommodates a wider range of action?

  5. I’m sorry, I misunderstood, based on later comments. (Slippery meanings!) I assumed that the very point of bringing Habermas in was to harken back to the days when theories of communicative behavior were more “old fashioned” and valued the critical-rational. And that suspending the presumption of good old Habermasian rationality would result in totalized sociopathy.

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